No, not “terrorism”

Hyperbole is a constant temptation in debate, especially political debate. Since “terrorism” has now been made into a bogey-man (far out of proportion to any actual threat it poses in the United States) and used to channel anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry, accusing one’s political opponents of engaging in or supporting “terrorism” is an effective rhetorical trick. (The labels “Y’allQueda” and “YeeHahdists” being used to describe the perpetrators of the latest Oregon fracas reflects both the verbal cleverness and the anti-rural bigotry that characterize parts of the Blue team.)

Having myself fallen into that moral trap just this week, I want to take this opportunity to recant. No, the rag-tag army of narcissists and fantasts that has taken over the (seasonally empty) headquarters of the Mahheur National Wildlife Refuge is engaged in seditious conspiracy (which is good for 20 years in the federal pen), but not in “terrorism” by any reasonable definition.

Terrorism, before it became an all-purpose pejorative, described a very specific set of political strategies. The central point of terrorist action is, as the term suggests, not direct damage but fear. By making violent attacks directed at more or less random targets – classically, bombs planted in marketplaces and railroad stations, or attacks on isolated civilians – terrorist groups aim to weaken the states with which they contend in three ways: by demonstrating the state’s incapacity to protect the population, by damaging the capacity of that population to carry on normal social and economic activity, and by attracting heavy-handed responses from officials that would harm innocent bystanders and thus discredit the state’s legitimate authority. The patriot side in the American Revolution, Algerian rebels against French rule, the Viet Cong, and elements of the ANC in South Africa and the IRA in Northern Ireland all used terrorism with some success. Terrorist tactics can also be used by states to suppress insurgencies, and arguably the bombing of population centers is essentially a terrorist action; the bombings of Guernica, of Dresden, and of Hiroshima had much in common with the attacks of 9/11. That distinguishes terrorism from political assassination, which aims directly at the death of a specific target for tactical political advantage or revenge. Attacks on military and police forces are also a different phenomenon from pure terrorism. With that background, consider the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.  Yes, it seems probable that some of the occupiers hope to attract an over-the-top official response that will make them into martyrs. But otherwise their actions have little in common with terrorism in its primary meaning. They have certainly caused fear – Harney County has closed its schools for a week – but the goal is not to terrorize the local population. The willingness of some members of the group to kill as well as die has been proclaimed this time and was demonstrated in the Bundy Ranch confrontation, when they forced the federal government to back down by credibly threatening a massacre of federal law enforcement officers. But they’re not actually threatening civilians or raiding farmhouses. The randomness of true terrorist attacks makes them, in my view, morally horrible beyond the horror of ordinary violence, on a par with torture rather than simple murder. (I’m strongly inclined to say, with respect to terror as well as torture, that it is never morally licit. But even if you’re not willing to come that far with me, it seems obvious that killing random bystanders requires a different level of justification – if it can ever be justified – from killing soldiers.) So I’m sorry to have allowed myself, in the heat of the moment, to misuse the label “terrorist.”  As it happens, a similar misuse of language underlies some of the rage being played out in Oregon. The Hammonds (père et fils) face five-year mandatory minimum sentences for arson on federal land under a statute called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA): specifically under Title VII of that act, headed “Criminal Law Modifications to Counter Terrorism.”

Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other personal or real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States, or any department or agency thereof, shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both. 

The rather hysterical heading of that Title helps justify the draconian mandatory sentence, but the crime as defined – and the crime as the Hammonds committed it – has precisely nothing “terroristic” about it. If we recall that the goal of the terrorist is to spread fear, the fundamental anti-terrorist strategy is precisely keeping calm and carrying on. Let’s not let our enemies -foreign or domestic – drive us crazy.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

10 thoughts on “No, not “terrorism””

  1. In law, the term " terrorism" has been used in criminal law for at least a century. Laws against "uttering terroristic threats" have been around for a very long time. I recently served of a Grand Jury where we heard more than one case where someone was accused of issuing terroristic threats, and none of these cases had anything to do with what is commonly thought of as "terrorism."

  2. A broad definition of terrorism has been written into U.S. law, which says that domestic terrorism can include acts which are illegal, dangerous to human life, and "appear to be intended…to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion."[1][2] The actions of the people who assembled at Cliven Bundy's ranch qualify as terrorism under this definition. I agree with Kleiman that is it unfortunate to see the term diluted in this way.

    The Hammond case is unusual because the government appealed the sentences handed out by the trial court and won.[3] One defendant was sentenced to one year and a day, and the other defendant to three months in prison. The defendants served their sentences and were released, but now there sentences have been increased to the five year minimum specified by the statute and they have to report back to prison to serve additional time.


  3. This is a good read, i would only add that i think these Bundyites do appeal to the future Tim Mcveighs of the world. Mcveigh of course being a true terrorist.

  4. That's all true as far as it goes, but you're ignoring the larger context: The aggressive weaponization of the term "terrorism" by the right and the national security state. You're endorsing unilateral disarmament.

  5. Where did these people come from anyhow? Didn't Obama round them all up during Jade Helm 15 and take all their guns and imprison them in WalMart?

  6. "Ragtag army" is about right. It would be fun to go up to one of these militiamen and ask them, in a commanding officer to enlisted man tone, "Soldier, what is your chain of command?" Ask them whose orders they will obey, and who will obey their orders. In an actual army, it is expected that a soldier will have these names memorized, up to the commander in chief. If they cannot answer, you ask them loudly, "What kind of circle jerk outfit are you a part of?" The 1776 and 1814 militias were worthless to General Washington and General Jackson for this very reason. No one can count on anyone else to obey orders, and they fall apart before the engagement is half underway.

  7. While I agree that the mandatory minimum sentence is ludicrously high, I don't really see a problem with the sentence they've actually got.

    Arson is no joke; it's an uncontrollable crime that can escalate and even become homicide fairly quickly. Out-of-control fire is one of the great fears of modern civilizations (think of the Great Fire of London). Even criminal justice systems that are normally more lenient than the American one become hard-nosed pretty quickly when arson is involved (especially those that have institutional or recent memories of major conflagrations). I don't think they could have expected measurably lighter sentences in the UK, France, or Germany, though they might have served a smaller part of it (in fact, in Germany, their crime would have carried the exact same mandatory minimum sentence; using arson to cover up another crime – or, alternatively, having it endanger a human life – is the aggravating factor that drives up the minimum sentence).

    They set major fires that came close to endangering human lives; I don't really think five years is an outlandish punishment for this.

    1. Fire is dangerous–but at least one of these particular fires were backfires, in a context where there was already a wildfire. (There's argument over whether that was the sole/primary purpose.)

  8. I've taken to comment, where I can, that those people do not constitute a militia (which is a fine and honorable term). They are a mob.

  9. "… by attracting heavy-handed responses from officials that would harm innocent bystanders and thus discredit the state’s legitimate authority." This needs updating.

    Agents of the state everywhere have read their Marighella and are aware of the trap. The French paratroop colonels who fought the Battle of Algiers in the Casbah in 1956-57, with mass roundups and indiscriminate torture, would be unlikely to repeat their tactics today, guaranteed to alienate an entire community. The equally ruthless and unconstrained subordinates of Bush and Cheney who ran the CIA torture programme were far more selective, with victims in the hundreds not thousands.

    On their side, revolutionaries seem to have drawn the lesson of the repeated failure of the "heighten-the-contradictions" bank shot: you never get the hoped-for mass insurrection. Instead the aims seen to have mutated into two more realistic ones.

    1. When the enemy is a liberal democracy, force it to reveal the hypocrisy and shallowness of its claimed commitment to human rights and the rule of law, domestic and international. This worked perfectly for al-Qaeda against the gullible and insecure Bush.

    2. Bypass the state by targeting public opinion, generating a wave of abuse and discrimination against the "friendly" target minority (for instance, immigrant-descended Muslims). The newly vulnerable minority will become more radicalised and supply more soldiers for the revolution. This is working pretty well for ISIS in Britain, Belgium and France. In the USA, it is working fine with one of the two main political parties, but fortunately the other has held the line of common sense.

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